The Feminine and Punctuation May Well Save the World

This piece is dedicated to exited women, brave and vulnerable, who have inspired me beyond words. 

 “The world will be saved by the Western woman.”
—The Dalai Lama, Vancouver Peace Summit 2009

An ambiguous pronouncement, what does it mean? I have been pondering that since it hit my Twitter feed during the 2009 summit. Was it just another demand for women to solve the messes created by the patriarchy? Frankly, I was more annoyed than inspired by this proclamation.

This year presented the deeply alarming war on women and, for me, the chance to revise and republish a paper that I had written in 2008 on the correct usage of punctuation; and, when adding the final touches to the paper—suddenly the Dalai Lama’s words had a new clarity.

So, imagine saving the world with a mash-up of:

  • The current political standpoint—specifically, the legislative war on women
  • Rejecting the effects of patriarchy—specifically the madonna/whore split

And, lastly:

  • Correctly wielding punctuation—specifically, the slash—rightly known as the virgule

You might be wondering, “Oh criminy, where is she going with this?” Admittedly, right-wing politics, Jungian psychology and punctuation might be considered critical thinking non-sequiturs. I cannot imagine even one unanimously satisfactory menu that Rush Limbaugh, Marion Woodman and Grammar Girl would agree upon. Therefore, it is most unlikely, under any circumstances, that the trio would ever occupy the same public space. Not even Chez Panisse’s well-nigh perfect menu would suit all three representatives of this mash-up.

To Jungians, the war on women and the madonna/whore split are obviously connected. The 2012 legislative war on women has introduced more non-Jungians (American women, especially), to Jungian concepts than at any time since Joseph Campbell was featured on the PBS series, The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1988. Activist, feminist women have discovered the machinations of the madonna/whore complex as both psychic and political realities. They are studying Jung all over again and some are studying psychology for the first time.

While I do not believe that at any time in the past 6000 years any group (or groups) of men convened and decided to make the lives of women as unbearably miserable in as many ways as they could imagine, that has been the precise effect of unbridled patriarchy.

One thing that the patriarchy has consistently done across the centuries and around the globe is to forcefully re-assert itself in when anxiety strikes those in the uppermost reaches of the patriarchy’s power pyramid. It is the nature of patriarchy to distribute discomfort downwards while hoarding power upwards. Women live at the bottom of the pyramid worldwide. Financial and political anxiety on the part of the patriarchal mindset is predictably creating survival nightmares for the most vulnerable of women.

The War on Women:

The war on women—that is, the over 1200 proposed and passed laws intended to limit and even deny women’s bodily autonomy—is, more accurately, a war on disobedient women. The patriarchy is desperately trying to reclaim its authority (power) over women. In morality-cloaked language, the message is that women who want to control their fertility should simply practice celibacy. Which is an indirect way of calling any contraception- or abortion-seeking woman a whore. Of course, Rush Limbaugh actually called Sandra Fluke a prostitute in February 2012 for seeking contraception coverage. The legislation merely implies it.

That legislation ranges from draconian restrictions on abortions (36 states); to ascertaining the ability of any medical or service personnel to deny contraception to customers/patients (20 states); to requiring that doctors lie to women who might opt for abortions (Kansas and Arizona); to forced unnecessary trans-vaginal, pre-abortion ultrasounds (six states); to declaring a woman pregnant two weeks before she ovulates (Arizona); to the Roman Catholic Church attempting to impose its religious patrimony on to the public at large by denying contraception coverage for all its 1.74 million US employees (national: hospitals, universities, etc.), even though most such employees are non-Catholic; and, especially since 98% of American Catholic women use birth control, just like every other American woman. In addition to these general outrages, there are specific cases of women being forced to give birth while shackled to hospital beds and other egregious attempts to control women’s bodies and fertility. What a tangle. What erupted?

Clearly the far right is trying to relegate women into lives that do not include reproductive agency or bodily autonomy. These misogynistic laws appear to be cruelly punitive and medieval. What possible social benefit is there to forcing women to have unwanted pregnancies and to bear unwanted children? The very ideologues passing these laws are completely and peculiarly opposed to providing for throngs of unwanted children and the life-threatening complications of pregnancy and childbirth onto unwilling mothers. Are they unaware of the consequences of such legislation?

Or is something else driving this policy?

What, then, is the patriarchal panic behind this madness? Let’s back up and take a look at the madonna/whore construct, created in the underbelly of the patriarchy.

Madonna/Whore:

Madonna or whore—one or the other. A choice must be made—that is the reality of most women; indeed, the notion of the feminine itself has been bifurcated. She is defined as either a madonna—or she is a defined as a whore. Although, she was never in the conversation about terminology; nor did she participate in any negotiations about the outcomes of this imposed destiny. In truth, she never was allowed to define herself; she was defined from outside herself.

“The essence of oppression is that one is defined from the outside by those who define themselves as superior by criteria of their own choice.”
—Andrea Dworkin

By dint of the prevailing culture, each generation receives and revivifies the patriarchy, generation after generation with astonishingly little change. Such is the psychic and political milieu in which we all swim.

At best, the origins of the madonna/whore split occurred in an attempt to understand the full circle of all things feminine. A splitting apart to understand the parts; and ultimately the whole, if you will. The origins of this division seem to have been forgotten along with the consciousness that there is a patriarchy at all. Truthfully, some have benefitted so handsomely from the patriarchy, that it perhaps rather behooved them to forget the original purpose and deny its existence.

The inability of those benefiting from patriarchal privileges to even see their own privileges eventually drove women into the open rebellion known as feminism. The first-wave feminists, (the original suffragettes, circa the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), simply wanted legal rights; they had little language to name and frame the inequities in which they lived. Although, a few first wave feminists actually wanted rights on all levels and the unshackling of all things patriarchal, (Mary Wollstonecraft and to a lesser degree, Susan B. Anthony), most of the energy was directed towards securing the right to vote for women; and to cease being the chattel of, first their fathers, and then, their husbands. That took about 100 years.

Harken to the 1960s when the second-wave of feminism arose: this feminism crafted language for the conditions that women experienced. Discourse and discussion developed among women, we named marital rape and sexual harassment. We identified objectification and gave scores of inequities names that are now in common and legal parlance. We fought for—and won—the rights to contraception, abortion, to work outside the home and, occasionally, to be paid equally for doing so. We won the right to compete in schools, in sports, to serve in the military, to have rapists and abusive spouses prosecuted and to determine our own lives to a much greater degree than ever before.

Second-wave feminists began defining themselves on their own terms—at least in part—and rejecting the patriarchal insistence that women be the either emotional caretakers of men vis-à-vis the madonna role, or be declared whores who were expected to absorb the overwhelming majority of patriarchal hatred and abuse.

The patriarchy grew quite agitated with women’s new unwillingness to accept providing to men lifelong emotional succor. It attempted to lure women back into madonnahood, which some tried, but that role no longer fit. No matter what their individual stories were, most women had encountered a fuller sense of themselves. Although, many were seduced with material comforts and manipulations of elevated status, the madonna role was too small for most women to inhabit.

Meanwhile, the patriarchy responded with online gonzo pornography; therefore creating an unlimited supply of virtual whores. Dr. Gail Dines best defines gonzo porn: “…the biggest moneymaker for the $100 billion porn industry—which depicts hard-core, body-punishing sex, in which women are represented as dehumanized commodities who enjoy torture, violence and humiliation…” And, despite the fact that most porn users claim to be using erotica, over 90% of online porn involves violence against women and contempt for the obvious pain of the performers.

Sex trafficking rose as well. A greater percentage of people are enslaved now—both sexual and forced labor, the vast majority of whom are women—than there were when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. At least the patriarchy’s hatred of women is out in the open now, it simply cannot be denied by any thinking person.

Alongside gonzo porn, came the right-wing foot stomping that women re-conform their idea of what women should be; thereby supplying men with an equally abundant supply of madonnas. ‘Cept, it didn’t work.

And the greatest patriarchal secret of all was revealed to the non-Jungian public at about the same time: that the opposite of man is not woman; the opposite of man is boy. The notion that males should emotionally tend themselves without using women along the way is a late twentieth century concept.

The patriarchy has, historically, tortured, maimed, raped, enslaved and murdered women it deemed whores (or witches) for the crime of not providing the emotional comfort that the patriarchy proscribed. The ability of any man to accuse any woman of whoredom exists to this day. A surfeit of madonnas allows men—and animus-possessed women—to remain emotionally immature. Who wants to grow up if that can be avoided, Peter Pan? Nice to have a lot of Wendy’s around.

This current spate of legislation is but the latest patriarchal temper tantrum in reaction to the actuality that there are just not enough Wendys (read: madonnas) to perform the patriarchy’s bidding. We are left to presume that the supply of whores is ample. Or, at least digitally reproduced in sufficient numbers to avert a supply crisis.

Back to the War on Women—

Jungian analyst Gissette Paris writes in The Sacrament of Abortion, “…feminine power is a set of contradictions—the power of life and death. The feminine’s life-giving, protective powers cannot function properly if she does not possess full power, namely, the power over death as well as life.”

Full feminine power terrifies the patriarchal mind. Those minds prefer a bifurcated feminine: “Those whores who defy us with birth control and abortion must be made to suffer,” is the unwritten part of the 1200+ pieces of legislation that have rained upon women in every state in the past seven months. The legal roar commanding women surrender their reproductive rights to the patriarchy is an infantile demand for comfort—to shield grown men, especially powerful men—from the emotional demands of adulthood.

So, the patriarchal threats increase in severity and scope: should a woman become pregnant because she is having survival sex, (sorry, but that is the reality for many poor women), or raped or incested—then she must be forced to show her pregnant self to the world and then we will thereupon call her a whore. Furthermore, forced pregnancy will be imposed upon all women by means of denying women contraception. Thus spake the patriarchy. We hear you loud and clear, old patty-poo. Yes, we do.

The unspoken, and unwritten, patriarchal demand is actually for a greater number of available madonnas. And no tactics are too extreme, too grotesque to employ. The patriarchy is growing miserably uncomfortable. This is all the Wendys’ fault, of course. She must be made to understand her first obligation is to provide succor. And provide it now, damnit.

Women, for the most part, have absorbed the overt and covert patriarchal threats; we have internalized them and are many times made to live in fear of our lives and survival. And yet, instead of becoming madonnas, women are in even more open radicalized rebellion. If there was a response to this infantile legislation, it would be: “Grow up, Peter Pans, and learn to relate with us. We have given enough, thank you very much, and we refuse your definitions of us.”

Uh. Oh.

Politically, this is probably not going to go too terribly smoothly. For anyone. Women are not going to give back their bodily autonomy, even if it is legally mandated. Personally, there will be many friendships and relationships lost in the divide. Intra-psychically, we all have a great deal of housecleaning to do, beginning with refusing the internal madonna/whore chasm in one’s Self (or anima).

The fearsome goddess Kali will certainly redefine the feminine—but not everyone is comfortable with a wholesale jettisoning of the Judeo-Christian framework. However, any re-framing is better than none at all.

Punctuation (At Last!)

Madonna/whore, madonna-virgule-whore. The virgule is an utterly unique punctuation mark, it is a contra-mark, it can mean the word or; and, albeit much less frequently, the virgule can mean and.

Like the contranym, cleave, which can mean either to separate or to join together, the virgule can express both a separation from and a joining with. Slashes can join lines of poetry and combine ideas. The humble slash does something that no other mark does: it indicates two opposite forces. No period means anything other than the completion of an idea; to present a partial idea requires a different mark entirely. No question mark signifies both certainty and inquiry. Not so with the bi-directional slash.

A Note:

From here on out, when I say ‘woman’ I mean the anima in men and the woman herself in women. Make whatever meaning you want of the preceding text.

Disobedience

Disobedient women live bloody, messy, emotional and full-bodied and-type lives. The make the virgule a mark of union in utter delight of crafting a full-circled feminine life—even if the patriarchy labels that defiant and brands them as whores.

Disobedient women refuse over-socialization and have keen discernment. They seek definitions of their own makings and disregard all imposed definitions. They know that what has been done to the feminine has been done to the planet itself. And that the feminine, our psyches and the earth are near tipping points.

They know that the patriarchy despises disobedient women. Of course, this hurts them deeply, but they are not deterred. They dig deep within themselves and recover their sexuality from the splitting virgule and mend their whore to madonna or madonna to whore. You see, to disobedient women, it doesn’t matter. Their bodies remember being burned as witches, tried as blasphemers and being violently beaten and raped. They can still hear the contempt of being called whore. And they remember the hollowness of the false adoration as madonnas.

Disobedient women know that women are prostituted because they have no other choices in the patriarchy. They know that the prostituted suffer torture for all women and they feel a deep sisterhood with them.

They know the agony of being left and they know the necessity of leaving. No matter which side of the virgule she came from, disobedient women endeavor to make the virgule a union, and are both amused and outraged by patriarchal divisiveness.

Yes, that means she wants access to birth control. Oh, and abortion, also. She wants all women to have bodily integrity without overt and covert threats, repressive laws, religious structures, fawning promises of adoration if only women will embrace the role of madonna. No more manipulations. No more either/or.

A Caveat to the Dalai Lama’s Pronouncement:

Only if we are very, very disobedient.

I am pretty certain that the Dalai Lama knows full well that women have to defy the patriarchy to save the world—and that Western women are the most likely of all women to disobey.

Why Disobedience?

Why refuse the madonna/whore division? Because we cannot enjoy the feminine’s protective, life-giving powers if she is cleaved. Because our psyches and the world itself now depends upon re-uniting the contradictory powers of the feminine. Meet you at the virgule; we have a world to save.

“In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see.” —Elie Wiesel

Zeno’s Paradox and Addiction

It’s Hard to Get Enough of What Almost Works

I just finished Dr. Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the most humane, scientific and, dare I say, Jungian-without-Jungian-terminology foray into addiction I’ve read. This is high praise from someone who has read more than 200 books on addiction, listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts and audiobooks, read maybe another one hundred research papers on the topic. Several times since the 2008 publication, I’ve heard the author interviewed, and made a mental note to read the book.

Yet, Dr. Maté’s earlier interviews had never addressed the damage that addicts do to those around them, which I felt deeply ambivalent about. He seemed so okay with active addicts being, well, active addicts. Yet, I remembered that I’d left an utterly unrepentant addict and was in no frame of mind to issue get-out-of-jail-free cards to addicts. Nope, I was holding addicts accountable as I was struggling to identify and process what I had been dealt. Wondering Why didn’t he just bloody stop? haunted me.

Early this summer I heard a podcast interview with Dr. Maté, coincidentally, while in a bookstore, and left the store with the book. Hungry ghosts is a Buddhist notion for intensely unconscious and instinctually driven beings, no longer fully alive due to their compulsive behavior. Ghosts may crave intensely and seek incessantly, but their ability to be nourished is long absent.

The Jungian therapist David Schoen depicted addiction as an archetype in The War of the Gods in Addiction. Anyone who has observed an addict over time probably sees the addict’s behavior very much like an archetypal possession. Attempted communion with the archetypical destroys mere humans, overwhelming the ego with too-potent energies. But we humans persist. Sometimes we so desperately want to transcend distress that no risk—psychic, spiritual or physical—seems too great. Maté calls all addiction “a flight from distress.”

While reading Maté’s patients’ evocative stories, one senses their addictions as an archetypical presence. This well-written volume weaves the reality of addiction with the vanguard of science. Peppered with the neuroscience of our brains’ dual cravings—both the opiate attachment-reward and the dopamine incentive-reward systems that dictate some of our behavior with nary a frontal cortex neuron’s involvement—Hungry Ghosts goes onto explain that our earliest experiences “set” these two systems.

An imbalance created early in life in one or both reward systems foreshadows our future cravings/compulsions and, perhaps, addictions. Early trauma, abuse, neglect and injury can affect how our brains function for the whole of our lives. Although brains can recover to surprising degrees upon cessation of active addictions (both substance and process addictions), the addicted brain is ever-susceptible to its pre-established imbalances.

Without knowing the powerful dictates of maladapted brain chemistry and its resultant cravings, Jung posited that it would take either a spiritual transformation or a strong human community to overcome addiction. Writing of one his former patients, Roland H., who had shared Jung’s adumbrations about addiction with Bill Wilson (co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), just before Wilson became sober and started AA in this now-famous letter, Jung stated:

“…his (Roland W.’s) craving for alcohol was the low-level equivalent of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

…you might be led to that goal (of sobriety) by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends…

…the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by a real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society cannot resist the power of evil…you see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”

Jung also realized that both substances and processes were addictive:

“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.”

Maté writes of his own work addiction. And his compulsion to own classical music CDs, most of which he admits are never played once purchased. He writes plainly that he has lied to his wife about compulsive  CD purchases. On many occasions. That he has hid purchases, or parts of purchases, to manage his wife’s reactions to his latest music acquisitions. Just like an addict. He describes dulling the painful, empty place inside of him by planning and obsessing about owning various recordings and the ultimate high and release of his inner anxieties when he succumbs to the purchases. Followed by shame and deception. Oh, addiction, you are predictable.

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and addiction are interrelated. These bilateral structures of the brain are rich in opiate and dopamine receptors and have an a plenitude of connections to the limbic (emotional) system. Additionally, the OFCs receive sensory inputs from all five senses while maintaining vast connections with both the implicit and explicit memory systems. Both substance and process addicts’ OFCs do not function normally.

Why does that matter? The OFC’s purpose is to evaluate diverse stimuli and make a story for the frontal cortex. To tell a story to the frontal cortex for final decision-making. According to PET scans, the OFC has made decisions up to ten seconds before subjects report that a thought has occurred, with muscles already taking action well before the moment that the decision had been made. Although sometimes overridden by the frontal cortex, the OFC determines much of our behavior, emotional lives and decisions by acting as a hub for many portions of the brain to cohere into a story.

I am awed that Jung seemed to know that senses, feelings, imagery and story-making were connected decades before there was a shard of evidence. The OFC findings point to a wiring and chemical connection.

Addicts of all stripes report a nearly identical addictive process: a fantasy/preoccupation, intense craving, using, anxiety reduction followed by shame and increasing anxieties, which loops back to preoccupation. The short biochemical description of addiction is that all addicts are addicted to their own brain’s chemical surges. The variety of ways that addicts jolt their brains into overproducing shows a remarkable and telling creativity on the part of the addicts. So that begs the question of why one person is drawn to a work addiction and another to alcohol? Why heroin? Or sex? Or methamphetamine? Or collecting classical CDs? Or information avarice?

To address that, Maté quotes Dr. Vincent Felitti: “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.”

It was music that soothed Maté during a traumatic infancy in a Nazi-controlled Budapest ghetto. His father had been taken to a concentration camp, leaving his mother with the baby Gabor. Sometimes she spent 18 hours a day outside the home getting subsistence-level food for herself and her baby. When Gabor cried, no one came to soothe him. Both parents were utterly non-responsive to his crying. His mother left music playing while she was away obtaining food. Music was not the closeness to his mother that he really wanted, but it almost soothed him. Now, Dr. Maté finds that he will employ identical behaviors that he sees in his substance abuse patients to own yet another recording of Don Giovanni.

And his wife inquires: “Gabor, don’t you already have eight of that one already?”

Reading of Maté’s curious compulsion, it occurs to me: information almost works for me. Copious information almost makes the the world make sense. It almost bolsters me to face life courageously. Almost. My history offered knowledge-gathering as a substitute for parental bonding. Doesn’t the word almost conjure the image of hungry ghosts? Always grasping, yet ever empty?

Any particular addiction (or combination of addictions) almost works for that addict. Whatever combination each particular addict crafts is indicative of whatever it is that s/he is trying to resolve/staunch/sooth and what is available to relieve that. Again, Jung’s reach into patients’ histories for personal narrative in cultural context seems like current neuroscience.

Would a PET scan of my brain taken after a research binge reveal similarities to an alcoholic after a drinking binge? I do not know. I only know that I crave information. There I said it. If I could, I would inject sentences, thoughts and concepts into my veins to keep the information coming in. Information almost works for me.

Yes, clearly an addiction to information lives within me. Books are my first choice, followed by podcasts, audiobooks, lectures, workshops, classes, documentaries, research papers…and ad infinitum. Even though I have read piles of wonderful books, an identical anxiety looms in the last paragraphs of every one of them. An understood world is not a safe world, just a less anxious one for me. Hungry ghosts, indeed.

Like many addicts, I have been rather self-justified about my addiction, smug rather than ashamed of my imbalances. Because isn’t being uninformed just the worst of all possible fates? Isn’t not knowing like being an slack-jawed imbecile? I’ve certainly thought so. Years ago, I remember my son watching the DVD, Gladiator, and perhaps, in passing, I muttered something about conflating Roman emperors and movies with poor historical foundations. Perhaps.

“Oh stop, Mom, go argue with the History Channel.” my son protested, annoyed that I was questioning the veracity of the movie he found enthralling.

I am sure I shot something right back at him, which I am equally certain he ignored.

Now my son’s words sound uncannily like“Gabor, don’t you already have eight of that one already?” and Why didn’t he just bloody stop?

Why didn’t he just bloody stop? Because it almost works, that’s why. Was that the gem I have long been reading and listening for? Maybe, just maybe. Addiction is the repetition of what almost works, including my own.

And where does this take me, this new realization? I simply do not know and that is finally and incredibly satisfying.